You call him sissy and I’ll call him stronger than you

May 5th, 2011

The language we use to process our thoughts is a silent determinant in how we frame the world.* So when english-thinking people try to understand gender-related personality traits, we come upon a wall of strong masculine-feminine duality with a haphazard set of words for everything in between. Queer, transgendered, bisexual, pansy, femme, butch, gay – there is no clean spectrum to frame our identity.

And it wasn’t even until quite recently that we broke free from a very strict dualistic dichotomy. Gay boys and girls struggling with their identity had no framework to find their niche. Many felt forced to pick the set of cultural norms for the opposite of their own gender, and those who resisted often struggled with hiding their sexual orientation even if they wanted to be open and out in the greater society.

Since the late-60s we’ve been slowly moving towards an acceptance and understanding of the greater gender spectrum. Just as we have unbridled ourselves to take on whatever kind of profession or interest we desire, just as women have fought to eliminate the male-heavy roles in society, we have become more comfortable with where we lay between completely heterosexual and completely homosexual, and completely masculine and completely feminine. But we still still struggle with it because it requires a great deal of effort to put into words how we think and feel about where we are along the spectrum. The vocabulary available to us is unevenly spread across the shades of identity.

What got me thinking about this problem is what seems like an increasing number of videos, posts, and comments online by effeminate gays defending their right to be who they are. Among gay men, there is a bias against the more feminine men and a greater demand for ‘straight-acting’ gays who have little or none of the affectations of a ‘sissy’ – lispy voice, hyper-attention to outward appearance and use of body stylings more popular with females, etc.

Note that all of the terms I used in that last paragraph are relative – ‘straight-acting’ has no permanent definition, and neither does ‘sissy’ – and the latter is being pulled into words deemed totally unutterable, such as where ‘faggot’ will probably be in a decade or two.

As I began trying to understand the issues revolving the role of effeminate men in gay culture, the reality, as usual, is vastly varied and subtle. Most obviously is the wide range of identity among gay men. There is no common trait with any of them except their attraction to their attraction to other men (providing they are not bisexual to any degree).

But the biggest issue is where a gay man is on their quest to be fully accepting of their own identity. Having a sexual identity different than most other boys just when everyone is having to deal with new and confusing feelings and thoughts is only a catalyst for merely feeling different – an unsettling problem that can persist for a long time after fully coming out to family, friends, coworkers, and everyone else who matters in life. In other words, you may be honest with yourself and others about your sexuality, but you must also accept yourself as a whole because you may not have gotten over the feeling of being different.

(If you even vaguely feel this way, I suggest reading The Velvet Rage by Alan Downs – and you may want to think about talking with a gay-friendly therapist.)

So what is happening is that gays in varying states of accepting themselves for who they really are, thrown in to the same socializing and dating pool as gays fully comfortable in their own skin, all dealing with gays still coming to terms with their sexuality, plus heterosexuals in their own wide range of acceptance and persecution. And within the gay community the ones getting the short end of the stick are effeminate men who are fully accepting of themselves but who have a hard time trying to find peace and companionship. This is the group who put up with the brunt of the bullying as a teenager, the ones who are often survivors of much pain and suffering, who have fought hard for any scrap of happiness. They are often strong and outspoken – and still have trouble finding acceptance in the community they and their forebears built. It should always be remembered that among those who fought the hardest for gay rights were often the swishing, lisping ‘screaming queens’ that defined the stereotype. It was the drag queens who fought back during the Stonewall Riots, and never forget that.

That should be enough to give one pause and to think about one’s own gender biases. Our culture still holds onto the idea that it’s the manly men who are the strongest and put up with the grunt work of life – but that’s as much of a myth as the idea that we are the gender we appear on the outside. One of the greatest discoveries of the feminist movement is the role of women in history. The half of the population who stayed home while the man worked, who didn’t strap on a gun and fight in wars – they were often the ones who pushed the men and who fought for what really mattered. As recent as the Iranian election protests of 2009 it was the women who were the bravest in fighting back against the oppressive regime.

Because the primary function of language is to communicate between humans, changing our ways of expressing gender will take time. Sure, a panel of experts could come up with a whole new way of discussing identity, but if no one adopt their decisions the change will fail. Realistically all we can do is lay groundwork for future generations to better comprehend the range of who we are by doing the best we can with the words we have and let the usual mutation of slang, idioms, and clichés push into a more accepting way of thought.

* For more information, see the Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis…or for something less dry, try “How does our language shape the way we think?” by Lera Boroditsky, or “Does Your Language Shape How You Think?” from The New York Times.

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